Explorations question #13

A lucky number, perhaps.

The question: Is there a community that you aspire to join? What it is? Why do you aspire to join it?


Explorations question #12

In Chapter 12 of Starship Troopers, Heinlein makes the argument that all values reduce to the necessity to survive -- and that in consequence, war (and the preparation for war) can never be eliminated. Is he right about this? Does the necessity to survive always ensure that a properly-prepared military must always be among the highest priorities for a community?


Explorations question BONUS

Whose values are expressed in the National Museum of the American Indian? How are remembrance and othering manifest in the museum's layout and presentation of artifacts?


Explorations question #11

"Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. breed that forget this basic truth have always paid fot it with their lives and freedoms." -- Starship Troopers, p. 27.

Discuss. You might want to also bear in mind our destination for tomorrow's lab session.


Explorations question #10

On p. 285, Bellah and his co-authors suggest that how a society "deals wth the problem of wealth and poverty" should be a "litmus test . . . for assaying the health of a society." Do you agree? Is this issue the single most important factor that we ought to keep in mind when evaluating particular social arrangements?


Explorations question #9

As promised:

"Modern individualism seems to be producing a way of life that is neither individually nor socially viable, yet a return to traditional forms would be to return to intolerable discrimination and oppression" (Bellah et. al., p. 144). Discuss.


Explorations question #8

We spent class today talking about the definition of community. In the light of that discussion, is AU a community? Or does AU contain multiple communities? (Is AU itself situated within a larger community?)


Explorations question #7

In class we have been tossing around a lot of issues related to Invisible Man, including -- perhaps centrally -- the problem of the unnamed narrator's lack of a clear identity. Is this invisibility of his specific to his location in the bottom part of a racial hierarchy, or is it a more general phenomenon? Can anyone be similarly invisible, or just the members of a subordinate racial or ethnic group?

In order to keep the discussion focused, choose some specific example or instance of the narrator's invisibility from the text and try to disentangle the specific from the general elements. How much of what is portrayed is specific to a particular place and time, and how much is more generally applicable?


Explorations question #6

Question #6 already -- my how time flies.

In class today I suggested, or at least observed, that Ellison and Augustine are in some ways doing the same thing in their respective books: by writing in a retrospective way, they are recalling past events and imbuing them with a significance that they might not have had at the time. In addition, both write autobiographically, in the first person; the main actor is "I" in each work. That said, Ellison is writing a novel, while Augustine is writing something that purports to be a true record of events (albeit as a confession, not merely as a litany of occurrences). Does this genre distinction -- fictional versus non-fictional memoir -- make a difference? Would Augustine's book have been different as a novel, or Ellison's as a true personal history?


responding to question #5

I have not been a very good blogger thus far this semester, and I know that this response is later than my own specified deadline. I'll have to deduct some points from my mid-semester blogging evaluating in a few weeks.

But anyway: my answer to question #5 involves challenging the presumptions of the question itself. The way that the question is phrased suggests that the value of a life precedes any possible autobiographical reflection on it, but (like some of you) I would invert that order: rather than reflecting value that already exists, it is the autobiography itself that imparts value. That said, I would not agree that the value of an autobiography comes from its artistic character, although that is probably an important part of the reader's experience (and presumably why Ms. Cyrus has a ghost-writer: to make the autobiography readable). Rather, I think that augustine is on to something when he regards his autobiographical account to be a "confession": by narrating his life in a particular way he is, in a sense, making it into something else, something that it wasn't when he lived those experiences that he relates, but something that it now can be given his present-day perspective on what he previously experienced. Obviously, for Augustine, this is about making his life into a particular kind of offering or testimony to God, but I don't think that's essential to the exercise -- what is essential is the notion of a summary meaning or plot, whether that involves divinity or not.

In other words, I would say that it is the performative act of writing an autobiography in the first place that produces -- the convoluted grammar in this next bit of the sentence is important -- a life that is worth having lived, at least from the vantage-point of having lived it if not from the vantage-point of actually living it. And this is a scalable process, I think: aren't the downtown memorials in some ways examples of the same kind of process, but often on a national rather than an individual level? "Why was it worth having died in this conflict? Oh, right, now we understand why they died, even if they didn't understand that themselves."

I wonder what a memorial to the "war on terror(ism)" might look like -- what stories it might tell, what experiences it might recollect, what meaning it might impart.


Explorations question #5

Forgot to toss out a question at the end of class today, so here goes:

It was suggested during class discussion that what makes for an interesting autobiography is whether a person has done something important in her or his life, because that makes their personal story an interesting part of the explanation of what they've done. Augustine, somewhat to the contrary, suggests that what makes for an interesting autobiography is a person having some profound experience -- perhaps conversion, but we can imagine alternatives, like a near-death experience -- that causes her or him to re-evaluate her or his life in the light of that changed sensibility. But in both cases, the conclusion is that autobiographies are worthwhile when something dramatic happens to a person. But what about a life that is not characterized by drama? is such a life not worthy of being remembered in autobiographical form?

Another way to think about this might be: would you want to live the kind of life that might merit an autobiography? Why or why not?


Explorations question #4

Another either/or option for this week's question. [If you feel compelled to answer both of these, feel free to do so!]

4a) in class today I tossed out the term "strategic remembrance" to characterize what Augustine is doing in the autobiographical sections of Confessions. It's "remembrance" because he's recalling past events, and "strategic" because he's clearly doing it with a purpose, a purpose that he makes clear in the later chapters of the book. Does this clear and obvious purpose raise problems for Augustine's claim that remembering also recalls things that we know innately, like what happiness is? Can memory be both strategic and innate?

4b) thinking specifically of the article on Alzheimer's that we looked at for this week, and also thinking about Augustine's analysis of the relationship between identity and memory: would you still be you if you couldn't remember your past?


Explorations question #3

A choice for the question this week:

3a) Book IX of the Confessions completes Augustine's autobiographical account of his life to the date of the work's composition. Running with the "advertisement" reading of the text that we generated in class, what is the main thing that Augustine is advertising with this presentation of (him)self? In other words, what's the punchline?

3b) does Augustine's proligic use of the category of "sin" in his autobiographical reflections make his work more effective, or does it limit the appeal of what he has produced?


Explorations question #2

For this week's question I would like you to engage in a brief two-part exercise:

1) choose an item that you brought to school in order to make your room feel more like "home." This could be something you brought to hang on your wall, something that sits on your desk, or whatever. The important thing is that it be something publicly visible that says "home" to you. Then write a bit about what that thing represents, and what kind of identity you think it performs.

2) ask someone else in the class -- could be your roommate, could be someone else -- what they think that item says about you. In their eyes, what identity does it perform? Write a bit about their repsponse and any potential discrepancies between what you intended the item to perform and what they thought that it was performing.


Fall 2009 course blogs

And here they are, the five Explorations course blogs:

The Ambiguous Falling Slinky

The Drama Queen's Apartment

Swipe, Show, and Smile


The Once and Future Philosophers Club

repsonding to question #1

My intention is to participate in the course blogging for Explorations, which means that I too need to post responses to 9 of the 12 or more questions thrown out by the professor over the course of the semester. (The fact that I'm responding to my own questions does not, I don't think, raise any particular challenges!)

An important and solemn occasion. Well, just before class on Tuesday I presided over the dissertation defense of one of my PhD students. A dissertation defense is an odd occasion, since in the American system you defend your dissertation in front of a committee of your advisers, which means that they've all had input all along and presumably will have made any of their most serious criticisms to you beforehand -- and strongly advised you to incorporate those criticisms into your dissertation and provide responses to them. Contrast this to the system in, for example, Finland, where an external examiner who has had no previous involvement with the dissertation project comes in and grills the candidate in front of an audience (it's a public event, very ceremonial, everyone wears formal academic dress and uses some specified verbal formulas -- I described such a defense here). What this means is that in the US, a doctoral candidate is fielding questions from people who have almost certainly asked her or him those very questions before; as such, the exercise is about providing good public responses, and not necessarily about convincing one's committee (since if you haven't convinced them before, you're not likely to do it now).

In such a situation, I think it's especially important to maintain a good front. The committee-members are a team communicating their investigation of the candidate; the candidate is a team of one, communicating her or his fitness to be accepted into the tribe of legitimate scholars; the committee-members and the candidate together perform for the audience (US dissertation defenses are generally public, but they're not as elaborate an occasion as they are in, say, Finland) and communicate intellectual seriousness. The audience itself is a team, naturally, and communicates its respect for the proceedings. When I chair dissertation defenses, I generally create a distinction between people in the room holding PhDs and people without PhDs (including doctoral candidates working on getting their PhDs); for example, I invite the PhD-holders to ask the first audience questions, and only then open the floor to anyone who would like to ask a question. I also invite such PhD-holders to remain in the room when the candidate and the rest of the audience withdraws so that the committee can begin its deliberation about whether the candidate has passed -- I don't include those PhD-holders in the actual deliberations, but I do invite them to give their input "in private," as it were, before withdrawing so that the committee can come to a decision. Obviously this privacy is itself a performance, and it's a performance with a purpose: to further establish the privileges associated with the possession of a PhD.

In one sense, all of this means that by the time a defense actually happens, there is a pretty good chance that the candidate is going to pass (because if there were serious doubts, she or he would never have been permitted to defend in the first place). It's not a guarantee, but it's likely. A dissertation defense is very much a performance, then -- and I don't think that knowing that detracts from its solemnity or seriousness at all. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that the function of a dissertation defense is to (re)establish the PhD/non-PhD line as socially significant, and to formally transition the candidate across it. Thinking of it as a performance simply clarifies the character of the experience.


Explorations question #1

Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, p. 101:

For example, during the showing of the body at a funeral home, usually the social setting and all participants, including both the bereaved team and the establishment's team, will be arranged so as to express their feelings for the deceased and their ties to him; he will be the center of the show and the dramatically dominant participant in it. However, since the bereaved are inexperienced and grief-laden, and since the star of the show must stay in character as someone who is in a deep sleep, the undertaker himself will direct the show, although he may all the while be self-effacing in the presence of the corpse or be in another room of the etsablishment getting ready for another showing.

There is admittedly something odd, I think, about treating a solemn event like a funeral as a performance. But this oddness might be revealing, so to speak, even though it might also be taken as disrespectful. So the question is: in this case, which is it? Is Goffman's treatment of this and other social occasions revealing, or disrespectful?

As a suggestion, consider reflecting on some important and solemn occasion in which you have participated, and applying Goffman's performance metaphor to it. Does that detract from the solemnity of the occasion?